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Schools devise fall plan for practices, games once smoke clears

For Phoenix High School athletic director Dave Ehrhardt, it’s hard to know where to begin these days.

Already intent on ensuring safety protocols are being met amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ehrhardt found himself in the middle of devastation Sept. 8 when fires began to rage through the Phoenix-Talent School District.

From then on, it’s all been a bustling effort to tend to those in his community.

“It’s been an interesting nine or 10 days or whatever it’s been, I’ll tell you that,” Ehrhardt said softly. “This was not in the athletic director’s playbook that I looked up. We’ve spent these last two weeks mobilizing and doing everything we can to help people. We’ve got so many people in need, it’s just so sad.”

One would rightfully assume that sports take a backseat to anything going on in areas that were hit so hard by the recent fires like Phoenix, Talent and Ashland, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a focused effort to once again get back to the fall Season 1 plans for each once the air quality in this area improves.

“For a kid’s mental well-being, it’s good to be involved,” said Ehrhardt. “We’re looking at the fires being the same thing as COVID. We want to get our kids re-engaged. The tricky thing is we’ve got kids all over the place. In the district, 35 to 40 percent of our kids were displaced from their homes, so making sure that they’re somewhere safe has been a priority. But we want kids to get back out there as soon as possible.”

“For a lot of our kids,” he added, “it’s a huge part of the reason they are in school. Obviously we don’t want that to be the only reason, but there’s kids that need a chance to be involved in sports and other extracurricular activities like music, band, FFA, art and all those things. It’s what engages them and we don’t want to lose sight of that, either.”

That spirit is being embraced throughout the Rogue Valley, with all area schools working to ensure that their students may soon return to workouts with their peers in preparation for official Oregon School Activities Association play in 2021, as well as potential non-counting games this fall.

“Kids need something, they’re going nuts,” said Ashland athletic director Karl Kemper. “They need some healthy activity.”

“It’s an interesting time,” said Fred Kondziela, Medford School District assistant director of human resources. “I really, really feel for our kids. Our goal is to get kids engaged in something positive and get them going.”

“As soon as it’s safe to do so we want to get our kids out there and competing,” added Kondziela, who oversees athletics in Medford. “It’s a tough time for kids right now and for everybody, especially in light of the fires and everything. I feel for them. I just really want to see the air quality get better so that it is safe to continue.”

Air quality had been at hazardous levels until the middle of this week, and local athletic directors were hopeful that rain in and around the area Friday would allow for that to no longer be an issue. Per OSAA guidelines, outdoor activities are prohibited when air quality rises above 100.

Air quality stood in the low-70s in Medford and as high as the mid-120s in Ashland as of Saturday afternoon.

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Prior to the school year, Medford halted all athletic activities until Oct. 5 so its students and teachers who also serve as coaches could integrate themselves without distraction to a new distance learning plan set to run at least through Oct. 16.

Medford plans to re-evaluate its learning plan in three-week intervals thereafter, hoping to evolve to at least a hybrid learning plan once the metrics meet guidelines established by Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority (5% or less of COVID-19 tests returning positive each week in a county for three straight weeks).

“Right now, we are tentatively looking at a restart the first week of October, assuming that it’s safe to do so for our students,” said Kondziela. “We’ve been watching COVID metrics and certainly we’re dealing with poor air quality right now so we’d like to get kids practicing, conditioning, lifting and working out again provided it’s safe to do so the first week in October.”

Kondziela said the Medford schools would be open to seeking competitive play in all sports that are considered medium to non-contact this fall, but full-contact sports like football, basketball and wrestling remain prohibited.

All sports will be able to resume training in Medford beginning Oct. 5 should no further issues with air quality or COVID-19 arise, but Kondziela said schedules for practices or potential games haven’t been finalized yet between himself and fellow first-year athletic directors at North Medford (Brent McConaghy) and South Medford (Chris Mahavong).

Initial thoughts would be to allow for potential Season 1 competitions in the Southern Oregon Passing League (7-on-7 football), boys and girls soccer, track and field, cross country, baseball, softball, golf, tennis or cheer (assuming no stunts are involved).

“We’ll look to find games if we can, that’s our desire,” said Kondziela, “but certainly every district is in a different spot with their metrics so it’s been pretty tough.”

Only a handful of Class 6A peers are active when it comes to sports at the moment, according to Kondziela, with Grants Pass and Roseburg set to pick up in October while the Eugene-area schools are shut down until December.

Recent family relocations related to the fires only add to the mystery on what is to come, said Kondziela.

“It’s tough to predict what metrics will do when you have families doubled and tripled up in homes and those types of things,” he said. “We’ve had a greater need with families that have lost homes so we’ll just have to wait and see where the metrics are. I’d sure like to see them get better because I want all sports to be a go at some point this year.”

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Ashland has yet to receive district approval to allow for any workouts or training this fall, but the rest of the valley was either continuing or had just planned to start practices when the fires broke out.

Ehrhardt said Phoenix was one of those schools that had penciled in Sept. 8 as its starting date for fall workouts, but obviously that plan was short-lived.

Beyond being thankful for those in the community who luckily went unscathed or who have banded together to help a neighbor that wasn’t as fortunate, Ehrhardt said the district was fortunate to escape damage at any of its schools or Colver Field, where the Pirates play soccer, baseball and softball and train for cross country.

“It’s amazing,” said Ehrhardt. “The fire burned very close to the high school, and our new $55 million high school is within about 21/2 months from being done. This is horrific as it is, but if we would’ve lost our schools and Colver facilities in this as well, that would have added another layer to this.”

Ehrhardt said the high school regained power this past Wednesday and is working toward having classes resume on the upcoming Wednesday. Once there is safe and better access to the school — open roads are currently restricted to Phoenix and Talent residents — Ehrhardt said the Pirates would resume a schedule that allows for programs to meet up to three hours per week (two 90-minute sessions) and is structured so there is no overlapping for multi-sport athletes.

“That’s a big thing to us that they’re not feeling pulled,” said Ehrhardt, noting the Class 4A school had 34 multi-sport athletes last year. “We don’t want one sport having 12 hours of practices per week. We just want to reacclimate kids to athletics and get them going again.”

Along with its weekly training schedule, Ehrhardt said Phoenix is slated to play baseball doubleheaders and soccer games on the weekends this fall, as well as Thursday 7-on-7 football and, in a COVID-related twist, volleyball at Fichtner-Mainwaring Park with North Medford, South Medford and potentially a few other local programs.

“Our hope is that in the next couple weeks we can get back up and going,” said Ehrhardt, eyeing a return by at least the beginning of October. “We know the Pirates will be back so we’re looking forward to that day and just building toward that.”

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Crater High has similarly planned for teams to train twice a week, with staggered days for multi-sport opportunities, and will return to that once air quality improves.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) search and rescue team is currently utilizing space in the Crater gym so that won’t be available until their work is complete, according to Crater athletic director David Heard.

Besides competing in the aforementioned Southern Oregon Passing League, Heard said his boys and girls soccer coaches were in the midst of scheduling games (with players wearing masks) for the fall and volleyball discussing the plan for outdoor games in the sand.

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Eagle Point athletic director Kacey McNulty said his district remains ready to host and compete in boys and girls soccer, baseball, softball and 7-on-7 football once the smoke clears from the nearby South Obenchain fire.

“Anything we can do in phase two we will do at Eagle Point,” said McNulty. “We’re looking forward to getting kids going.”

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Few may be more eager for such activity than those in Ashland, where there were some summer workouts but predominantly a desire to err on the side of caution as the nation navigates uncharted waters.

“We are hoping to get started back up,” said Kemper, “but we don’t have a solid date. We want to provide for as safe of an activity, however and whenever we can, when we get that approval from the school district.”

“If we were to start back up,” he added, “we would be looking at wearing masks, doing temperature checks and having more administrative monitoring on all the safety protocols. One thing I learned this summer is it’s next to impossible to get teenagers to consistently socially distance. They just can’t do it. It’s not even defiance, they just cannot do it. So because they can’t distance, they have to wear masks, they just have to.”

Kemper said Ashland would likely focus strictly on training and conditioning, at least in the beginning, and that all activities would take place outdoors.

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St. Mary’s High will carry a similar philosophy toward its return to sports this fall, focusing on doing whatever it can through safety protocols to ensure that its athletes have their best chance to play once the OSAA’s Season 2 rolls around Dec. 28 and everything becomes official.

“The focus is not on games or trying to schedule things,” said St. Mary’s athletic director Jamie Young, “the focus is on how do we get all of our athletes — at a very critical time at the beginning of the school year where we are all remotely learning — how do we get those kids in contact with their teammates and their coaches. That’s what’s important, doing something positive for kids and getting them connected with their programs.”

St. Mary’s was set to institute a three-day plan (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) on Sept. 8 before canceling due to the nearby fires. The Crusaders had hoped to return this past Tuesday, but could only get into the gym that day and Wednesday before air quality forced a cancellation Thursday.

In the St. Mary’s plan, the weight room is open throughout the week and two-hour training sessions are set for fall sports on Tuesday, winter sports on Wednesday and spring sports on Thursday. That schedule will continue until Thanksgiving break, when the focus will shift exclusively to winter sports for the remainder of 2020.

“We don’t want to do anything that would potentially jeopardize our ability to move forward with this new OSAA schedule of competitions,” said Young. “It worries me if we have too many people trying to do too many things — could that change the dialogue and change the metrics — so that we’re somehow being told later, hey, we can’t do that now.”

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Potentially the most active school in the area when it comes to sports these days, Cascade Christian, is also the only one allowing for in-person learning to start the school year. The Challengers underwent a soft start for their classes this past week and will dive into a regular full-time schedule, with safety protocols in place, come Monday.

“Our teams have been working out since June, obviously doing what we can according to what the law and the state is providing for us to do,” said Cascade Christian athletic director Nate Mayben. “They’ve obviously minimized their time a little bit but they’ve been working out probably two to three days a week, mostly with conditioning and doing a lot of skill development.”

To complement that training, Mayben said he’s left open the opportunity for his coaches to schedule competitive games should they see fit this fall, albeit football, basketball and wrestling notwithstanding.

“I’ve told our coaches that we’re going to get through September because we’re going back to school in a little different story than the rest of the schools,” he said, “but to plan on scheduling games starting in October for all of our medium to non-contact sports depending on the region and what they can do.”

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Ashland and Crater both have strong cross country programs but won't get to show them off this fall. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune